Wednesday, 26 November 2008

What makes a Man Booker prizewinner?

An interesting book this one: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga. It's this year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, and the first that I've read from the shortlisted titles (I'd expected to see Netherland there, but it didn't make it).

The novel is constructed as a series of seven letters written nightly by the protagonist, Balram Halwai, to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, soon to visit India. The letters present Balram's rise in Indian society (or wealth at any rate) as a model of entrepreneurial culture in modern India, one that Balram believes that the Chinese Premier should adopt. The letters tell the tale of Balram's rise from a poverty-stricken background in the "Darkness" of rural India, to his position as director of his own small company in Bangalore. From the outset, Balram admits to being the murderer of his former employer, and his letters gradually reveal how this came to happen. Along the way he describes a very different India from the one that presents itself to the outside world, the one that Wen Jiabao will see. Balram describes a future-less life of penury and servitude in the Darkness, one that he escapes from through luck and guile, only to take up a similarly put-upon life in Delhi. In this new life, Balram reflects on the inequity and corruption that surrounds him, and comes to understand the features of public life in India that preserve the status quo for the rich. This realisation prompts Balram's murderous assault, and the initiation of his new life.

It's not immediately obvious how this novel came to win the Man Booker. It's not a particularly literary novel in terms of its writing, and in large part is driven by events in Balram's life. However, it does have a rather striking narrator who, though something of a self-aggrandising monster, is surprisingly engaging. And although Balram's story is heavy on event, the novel contains a vivid if excoriating portrait of modern India. Needless to say, the Indian tourist board won't be proudly parading this novel as an example of a culturally strident nation. Having not been to India, I can't attest to the veracity of the novel, but it paints a fairly convincing picture, and one that's liable to keep me away from India!

Overall, while having initial misgivings (did I really want to read a book narrated by a rather opinionated murderer?), I really quite warmed to it as I went along. It does conjure a fairly dystopian India, but does so in a fashion that's never uninteresting. Though it is frequently unpleasant (there's a rather repellent description of the cockroaches with which he shares his Delhi hovel). I suspect that its exotic nature won over the Man Booker judges, but it's certainly a lot more engaging than other prizewinners that I've read over the years (The Sea, for instance ...).

Interestingly, the novelist was on the radio the other day talking about the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. While he presents an extremely negative picture of India in the novel, in talking about the attacks he was quick to emphasise its essentially liberal democratic nature, somewhat at odds with his scathing portrayal of its politics as terminally corrupt. I guess that while recognising its faults (to understate the case!), he still harbours a love for his home country.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Little Rocket Man

Hiding my "addiction" well, I don't much mention computer games here. However, in "testing" our new PC I played through Half-Life 2: Episode Two again, but this time tried to complete one of its most awkward achievements: Little Rocket Man ...

Basically, one has to transport the garden gnome pictured above through the entire game from start to finish (echoing the travelling gnome prank popularised in the 2001 film Amélie). The ultimate aim is to place the gnome in the pictured hatch so that he can be launched into space, thus playing his own small role in this particular battle against the Combine.

Anyway, though tiresome at times, it was actually fairly easy to do, although the gnome doesn't make for a particularly good projectile weapon (he's not really heavy enough). Aside from accidentally leaving the gnome in a location that can't later be accessed (the section involving retrieving the car springs to mind), the only really awkward portion was driving with the gnome. The game designers need to put a proper boot (or doors!) on the car - the gnome continually falls out of the car whenever you reach, say, 5 MPH. As a result, you wind up punting the gnome, shot put-style, then driving to where he's landed and then repeating the procedure. Annoying in usual conditions, highly frustrating when a helicopter gunship is roasting you at the same time.

Still, mission accomplished in the end.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Not Frank Bascombe

One of the books I tagged up in my list of Top Ten Books was the 2006 novel The Lay of the Land by the American author Richard Ford. The book is a rich examination of the inner life of realtor Frank Bascombe, but one in which only a limited number of external events occurs. Reading his earlier novel, 1986's The Ultimate Good Luck, is an altogether different experience.

Set in a then-contemporary Mexico, the novel tells the event-filled story of Harry Quinn, a Vietnam War veteran all at sea in the city of Oaxaca. He has travelled there to expedite the release of a former girlfriend's drug-running brother from prison. Sonny, as well as being caught carrying cocaine by the untrustworthy local police, is suspected of trying to cheat the shady local crime boss that employed him. As a result, Quinn finds himself caught between the corrupt legal authorities and the violent henchmen of Sonny's employer. To further complicate the situation, Quinn's former girlfriend, Rae, is travelling to Oaxaca to see her brother, posing both concerns for her safety and emotionally unsettling questions for Quinn. Against this dangerous foreground, the lawlessness and casual violence of Mexican life unsettle all bets on the outcome.

The preceding cliché-ridden summary probably doesn't do the novel any favours, but it covers the bases, at least in outline. What makes the novel more successful and interesting is that Ford brings his literary style to what is an otherwise conventional noir setting. So although the novel is given shape by the events that Quinn finds himself amidst, Ford gives a strong voice to Quinn's perceptions and his memories. While not entirely resolving the plot in a convincing fashion (unless I missed something!), he does a good job using it to ratchet up the tension. Quinn is forced down a twisting path where his available choices and his freedom for action are continually narrowing.

Given Ford's Frank Bascombe books, its interesting to read quite a different sort of novel from him. Certain things remain constant, principally the introspection of his central characters, but it's pleasing to see Ford successfully handle a more plot-driven piece too. Time to check out his other work.

In passing, given that this is the work of a literary giant and that it has a relatively straightforward plot, I'm amazed that an indie film director hasn't picked it up yet ... Actually, a quick look at the IMDB finds the Ford-penned Bright Angel, which seems to borrow somewhat from The Ultimate Good Luck. So there goes that idea for my entry into the upper echelons of Hollywood.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Conflict Thesis

We went to another of the Christians in Science biannual seminars last night. This one was given by an OU historian of science called Colin Russell, and was entitled "Science and Faith at War: Myths and Fables, Old and New". It focused on the so-called conflict thesis of the relationship between science and religion.

Essentially the thesis is that, both historically and theoretically, these two cultural forces are irrevocably at war with one another. The thesis is pretty mainstream in the culture, but the contention of the speaker is that it is both founded on myths and has no theoretical basis. This latter view, of course, doesn't sit well with the likes of Richard Dawkins or A.C. Grayling, while the late Stephen J. Gould proposed the concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) to try to diffuse the purported conflict.

The speaker's main strategy was to cast doubt on the historical basis for the alleged conflict. This, actually, is quite successful, since ostensibly famous examples such as Galileo and Darwin (both discussed by the speaker) turn out not to be quite as straightforward as the conflict narrative has handled them. This isn't to say that there was no conflict in their lives with religion (there obviously was some), but that building the case for the conflict thesis around them is misplaced.

That said, while the speaker was somewhat successful is dismissing aspects of the conflict thesis' case, he seemed (to me, anyway) to go far too far the other way, and blithely ignored or discounted the somewhat weaker evidence that the examples he dismissed still provided. Generally, there was something of a whiff of a straw man about the presentation of the conflict thesis by the speaker. It was almost as if he was arguing against the great proponents of the thesis by (rightly) countering their overstated bluster with his own.

However, where the speaker really came unstuck was on the topic of present day creationism. Possibly because he realises that it truly does represent a latter day conflict, he essentially dismissed it as some sort of fringe activity that wasn't representative of current religious thought. While he's right that many religious figures and organisations have disavowed it, it was a bit disingenuous of him to write it off just because he doesn't happen to believe it. He provided no grounds for an impartial observer to favour his view of religion over that of the literalist creationists. Instead he seemed to just imply that they're luddites who haven't yet come to understand his much deeper comprehension of the Christian faith.

Although I think that they're at best simply ignorant, I do think that the creationists have got something here. While they go to absurd lengths of fantasy to justify a literal reading of Genesis, they recognise that once you start labelling a religious text as a mixture of metaphor and literal truth, you're on something of a slippery slope. That said, while I don't buy it (= understatement of the year), I think that it's perfectly possible that a metaphorical Genesis gave way to a literal Jesus. But given that almost all religions deal with events that can't now be objectively verified or which occurred before accurate or comprehensive records were maintained by historians, the factual basis for any of their wilder claims is never going to materialise (short of divine intervention, of course).

Anyway, after this, the speaker dissolved into a long series of platitudes and the sort of "neither metaphor or literal" gibberish that appears common in these lectures. The latter is like a red-rag to me - it might play well with the faithful masses, but it's (a) ineffective and confusing; (b) a deliberate misuse of language to muddy the intellectual waters (c.f. Garrett Hardin's "literate filter"); and (c) leaves me with the suspicion that an otherwise intelligent person realises that there's no empirical basis for their faith (surely the definition of faith?) but that they won't come out and say so. Basically crazy-talk.

In passing, regarding the speaker's presentation style, he was clearly born and educated not only long before the Powerpointocene Epoch, but actually prior to the Overheadozoic Era. It was a classic talking-only lecture. Which, unfortunately, didn't suit the speaker's memory. There were a couple of occasions where he seemed to lose the thread of his argument, despite the fact that this was an overview talk rather than something very specialised or detailed. This wasn't important to me, since I know a bit about what he was talking about, but must have been a bit confusing for people less familiar with the ideas.

Anyway, all that said, while I profoundly disagreed with the thrust of what he said (though I completely accept the overstatement of the conflict thesis), he was certainly one of the more honourable of the speakers that Christians in Science have attracted. No McGrath-style duplicity and lawyering here.

P.S. I forgot to add above (probably because it's just so ridiculous if taken at face value) that the speaker identified Jesus' resurrection as the most historically verified event ever. Or something like that. It's possible that he meant only the subcategory of "events that happened to Jesus", rather than "events that have occurred in the world at some point". But he wasn't exactly clear on this point.

I think this was the moment, and it's affected all of the speakers in this series of lectures, when he "jumped the shark" and used the authority that he'd built up during the lecture to dress up his personal faith in Christianity as if it were a hard, undeniable fact. Even though all of the speakers have had some connection to science, at some point in the evening they make a non-sequitur where suddenly the mythology underlying their particular beliefs suddenly becomes empirical truth.

This is the kind of thing that should cause cognitive dissonance, but all of the speakers have been able to "hold it together". Speaking as a heathen, I read this "leap" as a declaration of their faith, although all of them have presented it in quite different terms. It's almost as if, as scientists, they know that they can't join-the-dots from base reality to their particular beliefs, and that they know that this is a major stumbling block. If they can't make the connection, how do they know that their beliefs are the correct ones? So, to get around this, they baldly state that (their particular flavour of) Christianity is plainly and unimpeachably a fact of the universe. No supporting evidence; no suggestion that this is an article of faith; just a straight "I'm a scientist, so this must be true" statement. If you say it often enough to yourself maybe it even becomes true and no longer requires a leap?

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Top Ten Books

C was telling me yesterday about a feature that appears in her work newsletter in which senior management figures list their top ten books and describe why they like them. Avid reader that she is, she's already got a top ten and was thinking about whether to submit her books to the newsletter for universal acclaim/derision.

Not to be outdone, I had a think about what I would pick. It was quite a bit of a think since I tend to forget even great books (at least from my working memory). Anyway, in purely chronological order (ranking is dangerous), and strictly for today (might be different tomorrow), my top ten would be ...

  • The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke, 1956
    A bad sign: starting with science fiction. Still, this is definitely a classic of the so-called "golden age" of the genre. It sports robots, aliens, a disembodied and benevolent AI, a deep mystery, a journey between the stars and tantalising glimpses of Grander Things. Marvellous.

  • Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, 1973
    A very difficult book to describe, and not one that would sound that appealing from a plot summary. A salesman gradually becomes insane, believes the writings of a hack science fiction writer are factual, and runs amok at a literary convention. But Vonnegut's writing (and drawings!) is melancholically brilliant and surprisingly humane. And he carries off introducing himself as a character fantastically.

  • Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks, 1990
    One word here: structure. While set within the science fiction utopia of the Culture, this novel uses an impressive jumbled narrative to both take its central character on a journey to seek redemption, while delving into the reasons why this is required. The handling of its revelations is brilliant, being melded perfectly into the narrative. Not the most "world-building" of the Culture novels, but that's beside the point.

  • Brazzaville Beach, William Boyd, 1990
    A biologically inspired choice here (there's another one later). This follows the life of Hope Clearwater, a biologist, through several strands of her life. Much of the novel takes place in a well-realised Africa, with civil war and Hope's research on primates providing its focus. The novel blends in science wonderfully, and contains some dark truths about the nature of human and animal conflict.

  • The Tortilla Curtain, T. Coraghessan Boyle, 1995
    A great study in contrasts on either side of the wealth divide in southern California. One half of the novel follows a middle class writer, his love of the Californian wilderness and the threats he feels it's under. The other half follows a pair of illegal Mexican immigrants, pressed up against the hard realities of poverty and struggling to make ends meet. They occupy the same living space, but their worlds couldn't be more different, a theme that the novel explores as the narrative gradually weaves the two strands together. Without giving anything away, it ends with a brilliant moral cliffhanger.

  • Microserfs, Douglas Coupland, 1995
    I simply love this novel. It may be that it embodied a time in my life that was particularly significant, but I think it's more than this. It basically tells the story of the lives of a group of Microsoft friends (the Microserfs) who quit that monolith to begin their own start-up company. That sounds rubbish, I know, but it handles the interpersonal relationships between the characters brilliantly (and lovingly), and speaks volumes about our lives today (at least to me). Anyway, it's a novel I've blogged about before (at length).

  • Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver, 2000
    Another novel influenced heavily by biology. It's spread across three distinct strands: a young hunter drifts into the life of a lone biologist tracking wolves in the forest; a former biologist suddenly has to come to terms with the death of her husband; a pair of antagonistic old timers grudgingly come to terms with one another and their lives. Beautiful writing, with a real sense of nature, but written with a biologist's appreciation of the savageness that underlies its apparent beauty.

  • Unless, Carol Shields, 2003
    While set around the quietly domestic life of a female translator and novelist, the novel is driven by her growing anguish at the apparent breakdown in her relationship with her daughter, and her anger at the casual sexism she encounters in her working life (expressed through a series of letters that she writes during the novel). These themes are not as isolated as they appear, and they are articulated in beautifully written prose. It's a real shame that Shields died shortly after completing this novel.

  • The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford, 2006
    The "conclusion" of a trilogy of novels about the novelist / sportswriter / realtor Frank Bascombe. It probably isn't the best of the trilogy (the second novel, Independence Day, is more solid), but it's the longest, and immersion is the key here. Ford creates an internal life for Frank that's just amazingly well-realised, and the writing describing it is simply sublime. As with the "prequels", the events of the novel take place over only a few days, but the depth and texture of the writing makes it feel like you're with Frank for years (in a good way).

  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon, 2007
    Ah, the perils of adding a recently read novel ... I loved this trans-genre work (see here), but it's quite possible that I'll look back in bewilderment at a later date. It tries to take on the crime, noir and (possibly) science fiction genres, weave in some Jewish themes, while using literary flourishes throughout.
  • Tuesday, 11 November 2008


    The Grauniad has an item this week about spoofs of Obama's rather stylish "HOPE" poster. Never having been one to miss a chance to goof off with Paint Shop Pro, here's my attempt at spoofing.

    Those in the know will immediately understand the significance of my message.

    Wednesday, 5 November 2008

    Fingers crossed ...

    We stayed up late (till 3:30am) to catch the results from the US elections. It afforded us an opportunity to use something that we picked up during our trip to Florida ...

    By bedtime it looked pretty clear that Obama was Whitehouse-bound; a result that was predicted by our mug, and confirmed the next morning. Since this outcome had seemed likely for much of the past two months (even if it was loudly denied to beat back complacency), it wasn't quite as exciting a final night as other elections, but it was still a blessed relief.

    That said, I do feel a bit sorry for McCain. Until he ran for the Presidency this time, I'd always (inasmuch as one can as a sporadic observer from a foreign land) had time for him, and he was an interesting and moderately non-partisan player in Washington. He'd garnered a lot of sympathy from me because of the dirty tricks played on him by the Bush campaign in the 2000 primaries (which I think many commentators seem to have forgotten about). In fact, because of this, I was initially quite afraid that he might be able to beat the Democrats by playing against Bush and his cronies. But rather than run this way, he gambled instead that he should remain quite anodyne on the Bush administration. As a result, he completely diluted the personal brand that he'd built up over the years, a dilution that was pushed to almost homeopathic levels when he appointed Sarah Palin. While that was a smart move in terms of shoring up his Republican base, it again didn't seem like the kind of thing that "maverick" McCain would have done. He'll doubtless come in for a drubbing from his much-reduced party, but much of that will likely miss the point that the only way he could have won was to play against the existing (and much disliked) party structures.

    Anyhow, Obama gets to sup from the poison chalice. I can only hope that the fate that befell 1997's popular UK poll-winners doesn't happen to him. Still, even Blair only made a few significant mistakes but, boy, were they big. Hopefully Obama's cool and collected campaign will be reflected in his tenure in the Whitehouse. We'll see.

    Tuesday, 4 November 2008

    Off to Kiel

    Spent Sunday (2nd) to Tuesday (4th) this week in Germany visiting the PI on my last contract. We've got a couple (ha!) of things to sort out on two papers we're preparing, and since he's been AWOL from NOCS for more than 2 years, a bit of face time was in order.

    Anyway, my trip took me to IFM-GEOMAR ... ... in foggy Kiel ...
    Although this was mostly a work trip, I did get a chance to wander around the city a bit. It's of comparable size to Southampton and shares many other features, like being a working port and having the crap bombed out of it during the Second World War. The latter means that a lot of it is relatively new, but there's still a lot of interesting stuff to see. Here's one of several sculptures I came across ...
    There's a more complete set of pictures up on Flickr.